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i-Technology Viewpoint: What Is Digital Convergence?

"Digital Convergence = Mashups," Says Ajit Jaokar

Digital convergence is a much-maligned concept. Mention Digital convergence, and it conjures up images of the intelligent fridge : a concept most people think they have no need for!

But Digital convergence is an idea whose dawn is near.

There is a lot of confusion about what exactly is meant by digital convergence. When people talk of Digital convergence, they could actually mean different things:

a) Co-mingled bits : The original definition of Digital convergence as outlined in Nicholas Negroponte’s 1995 book Being Digital

b) Device convergence: One device to rule them all! Think the iphone (A combination of the iPod and the mobile phone), Nokia N-gage etc etc.

c) Fixed to mobile convergence: A relatively new, telecoms specific area which is a part of a much broader concept called ‘seamless mobility’

d) Devices being able to speak to each other and share intelligence leading to a new service aka the ‘Intelligent fridge’.

Besides these definitions, there is also the question of “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.'' – as Mike Langberg so aptly put it in his article soon after CES

By that, we mean: your tools (focus) determine your viewpoint of the world. The ‘nail’ in this case, is ‘Digital convergence’. The ‘hammer’ is the viewpoint (strengths) from which each player is approaching Digital convergence.

For example: (as per the article)

For Microsoft, convergence is a software problem: to be solved using an upgrade of the windows operating system (Microsoft’s strength).

Intel sees convergence as a ‘microprocessor problem’, to be solved with a vague new branding program called ``Viiv'' (A new version of ‘Intel Inside’?)

Cisco sees convergence as a home networking problem, to be solved with .. guess what .. networking!

Yahoo and Google see convergence as an online services problem. To them, the solution lies through the web browser - a common element in all devices.

Sony sees convergence as a consumer hardware problem, to be solved with consumer devices, new standards built around its own strengths like the playstation (http://www.n-gage.com/).

No wonder there is confusion!

As expected, I am also wielding a hammer(i.e. I am biased by my own experience) and hence see the ‘nail’ in light of the hammer.

I shall discuss my viewpoint in this document but it’s important to note that the only things common between all these definitions is:

a) Digitization and

b) Communication

In other words, information must be digitised and it must flow freely. This leads to new services, which are greater than its parts i.e. greater than what the devices could provide on their own.

That’s all there is to it.

Let’s first discuss the definitions above in a little more detail


Co mingled bits : The first definition, ‘co-mingled bits’, was proposed by Nicholas Negroponte in his 1995 book ‘ Being Digital ’.

Negroponte’s definition of Digital convergence is “Bits co-mingle effortlessly. They start to get mixed up and can be used and re-used separately or together. The mixing of audio, video, and data is called multimedia. It sounds complicated, but it's nothing more than co-mingled bits."

Another way to put it is: to a computer, there is no difference between a symphony, a voice call, a book, a song, a TV program, a shopping list etc as long as they are all digitised

The factors driving digital convergence/co mingled bits include the rapid digitisation of content, greater bandwidth, increased processing power and the Internet.

Digital convergence brings four (previously) distinct industry sectors in collaboration/competition with each other. Thus, we have Media/Entertainment, PC/Computing, consumer electronics and telecommunications industries all interacting closely with each other than before. This version of digital convergence is happening all around us . Terms like triple play or quadruple play are a part of this scenario. Triple play involves voice, broadband and mobile services and quadruple play adds digital TV to that mix(Richard Branson, in his own unique style, prefers the term fourplay to quadruple play :) ).

Whatever name you call it, here are co-mingled bits in action! If everything has become digital, then the boundaries between the providers fade away. The same trend was seen in the utilities market(gas and electricity suppliers being sold from the same entity).

Device convergence: Addresses the age old question .. ‘Will we carry one general purpose device or will we carry many specialised devices?’. Boundaries between devices are fading fast and devices are now capable of performing more than one function.

It is unclear if customers would really want a single device. Most people have a view on this - and so do the device manufacturers.

In March 2006, Microsoft confirmed that it was interested in a device combing the features of an iPod and a cellphone and rumours of an iphone launch are perpetually present


Fixed to mobile convergence : Fixed to mobile convergence is a relatively new area. It has emerged because fixed line telecoms operators and mobile telecoms operators are each vying for customers in each other’s traditional domains. Telecoms access networks are converging due to the emergence of new technologies. Thus, mobile network providers can provide fixed network services and vice versa. Services could also be converged. Thus, a user could access the same service from either a fixed or a mobile network. Fixed to mobile convergence could be a seen as a larger concept called ‘seamless mobility’ – the overall idea being that a customer should be able to ‘roam’ seamlessly between different network types(fixed, mobile, WiFi etc). Bodies like UMA - Unlicensed mobile access are driving the standards for seamless mobility.

Device communications: The capacity for a range of devices to share information between each other. We discuss this definition in greater detail below


THE INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY – A ROAD TO NOWHERE
Let us now come back to the two elements common to all these definitions. Firstly, information must be digitised. Secondly, information must be capable of ‘flowing freely’.

The first part, digitization, is a no brainer! It’s happening all around us. However, the second part ‘information flowing freely’ is the real bottleneck.

For information to indeed flow freely, there must be a common ‘lingua franca’ – a common standard. Some means for all the participants to communicate.

The big (and sadly predictable) battles are raging to control this communications medium(read the ‘hammers’ paragraph above to get an idea of who is trying to control what!) .

These battles have a feeling of Déjà vu from the early days of the Internet. In the early days, there used to be a term called ‘The Information Super Highway’.

Notice that it’s no longer being used .. Did you wonder why?

The term was popular with governments, politicians and people who wanted to exercise control. Because – highways mean toll booths and choke points!.

A few years down the road, we know that the Information superhighway is a road to nowhere!

superhighway.jpg
source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:PopularMechanics_InformationSuperhigh...


AN INFORMATION SUPERHIGHWAY … BY ANOTHER NAME?Inspite of the failure of the Information superhighway concept, there have been other attempts to create(and control?) a common standard .. with mixed results.

Consider the case of South Korea and Japan. In both these cases, communications technology is far more advanced. In many cases, we see convergence that we can only dream about in the west!

Apart from other factors like cultural affinity to new technology, the biggest factor by far is a ‘managed collaboration’ – for the lack of a better word.

For example - In Japan, for mobile devices, there has been a dominant player in the form of NTT DoCoMo leading to market cohesion. In South Korea, the government has actively managed standardization with spectacular results.

While the results so obtained are commendable, they cannot(by definition) be global. That explains why Toyota can be the dominant car manufacturer but iMode is not the world’s preferred mobile platform i.e. Japan can export cars (physical goods) but not information based products which require adherence to open standards.

The only other attempt I can think of is - Jini .

According to the original definition of Jini

Jini is the name for a distributed computing environment, that can offer ``network plug and play''. A device or a software service can be connected to a network and announce its presence, and clients that wish to use such a service can then locate it and call it to perform tasks.

Considering that one of my previous posts why mobile AJAX will replace both J2ME and XHTML as the preferred platform for mobile applications development , could be perceived to be ‘Anti Java’(for the record – it was never intended to be – but I don’t consider Java ME to be a preferred mobile solution either), I wanted to recheck the current status of Jini. As per this post on jini.org, A new dawn , there seem to be a lot of change about the status (and potentially the future of Jini itself in its current incarnation).

However, whichever way you look at it, Jini has not been the lingua franca which many hopes would spur digital convergence.

So, where does that leave us?

THE BASIS OF A LINGUA FRANCA
So far, we have seen that
a) Digitization is happening all around us

b) The communications mechanism facilitating the flow of digital content is unclear

c) Top down approaches (either from governments or from corporations) – do not work on a global scale.

Here is my view .. My view has actually been inspired by Irving Wladawsky-Berger (Vice President of Technical Strategy and Innovation – IBM) - whose thinking I follow with great interest.

Specifically, this article by Irving

where he says ..

Digital convergence can be viewed from different points of view, so let me share my own perspective. The standardization of technology components and interfaces at one level, opens up enormous opportunities for innovation in the application of the technologies for new products and services. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the innovation unleashed in the IT industry in the last 10 years by the move to standards and standard components and infrastructures, especially the Internet, coupled with the availability of increasingly powerful and affordable technologies. Going "up the stack," I am very excited about the opportunities for innovation in the world of business, as software standards like SOA and standard business components help us better integrate and transform companies and industries.

There is no question in my mind that convergence is now coming to digital entertainment and consumer electronics. Consumer electronics products are being built using common hardware components from the computer industry, for example, microprocessors, memory, storage, and so on, and most of their capabilities are now being designed as software. The drive toward open standards to link all the components in the home parallels what has been going on in IT for the last 10 to 15 years, and without a doubt, broadband Internet is emerging as the major communications and content distribution platform into the home.

There is no question in my mind that convergence is now coming to digital entertainment and consumer electronics. Consumer electronics products are being built using common hardware components from the computer industry, for example, microprocessors, memory, storage, and so on, and most of their capabilities are now being designed as software. The drive toward open standards to link all the components in the home parallels what has been going on in IT for the last 10 to 15 years, and without a doubt, broadband Internet is emerging as the major communications and content distribution platform into the home.

The viewpoint of ‘Going up the stack’ offers a potential road to Digital convergence. At the lower levels of the stack, the common element is IP(Internet Protocol). At the higher levels of the stack, the one common element to many new devices is http .

The web(by that I mean IP and http) are the common elements to almost all new devices.

Consider that the following five devices shown are all running a browser inspite of their obvious differences in form and functionality

browserdevices1.JPG
Images: http://www.opera.com/products/devices/markets/gallery/

Thus, the presence of a browser could offer a means to facilitate digital convergence.

DIGITAL CONVERGENCE = MASHUPS

Irving’s article hints at this by referring to SOA but my money is on a much lighter incarnation of SOA i.e. mashups.

Mashups are a core element of web 2.0. According to wikipedia, a mashup is a website or web application that seamlessly combines content from more than one source into an integrated experience.

Visual mashups are getting all the kudos at the moment .. for example housingmaps which combines craigslist and googlemaps

But, mashups need not be visual …

Consider the Yahoo Music Engine API

As per http://plugins.yme.music.yahoo.com/
linksys.jpg
Image source:
http://plugins.yme.music.yahoo.com/plugins/download/2005/0026/Linksys_Fu...

Hmmm… I’ve got all of this music on my PC, now how do I get it to my living room? Yahoo! has teamed with Linksys to answer this age old question. You can use the Linksys Music Bridge to wirelessly play all of your music directly to your home stereo. Already have a Music Bridge? Download the plug-in to select devices and control play output from within Yahoo! Music Engine.

While the Yahoo Music engine API is relatively obscure, it could point to a future trend where device manufacturers could enable other devices to mashup with them. As hardware becomes a commodity, the ease and connectivity popularity (number of mashups) could be a key differentiating factor for hardware manufacturers.

There is already a goldrush of sorts from makers of APIs to get their own API as ‘mashed up’ as possible. Even Microsoft is at it!

CONCLUSION

So, there you have it .. In my view, Digital convergence = Mashups.

I like this approach because it’s organic and it’s inclusive.

Of course, I am also wielding a ‘hammer’ here .. and my views are only as good as my understanding(or lack thereof!). So, all comments welcome at ajit.jaokar at futuretext.com

This concludes the three part series on web 2.0. Many thanks to all who have contacted me from all over the world with your feedback and thanks.

IMAGE ATTRIBUTE
The image is of David Brent from the popular BBC comedy The Office.

What has it got to do with mashups? I don’t really know! I searched for ‘mashup’ in google images and this image came up!. If anyone can figure out the connection, please let me know. Perhaps, its because David Brent considers himselves to be a renaissance man .. much like one hopes a new wave of renaissance and innovation is on us. That’s my best guess!

Anyway, I am a huge fan of The office .. and if you have never seen it .. worth having a look!

More Stories By Ajit Jaokar

Ajit Jaokar is the author of the book 'Mobile Web 2.0' and is also a member of the Web2.0 workgroup. Currently, he plays an advisory role to a number of mobile start-ups in the UK and Scandinavia. He also works with the government and trade missions of a number of countries including South Korea and Ireland. He is a regular speaker at SYS-CON events including AJAXWorld Conference & Expo.

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